I was sitting here in Rainbow Beach, soaking up the happy hour vibes outside a mate’s motorhome, eating cheese and sipping wine. Everything was fine. Then someone mentioned a trip to Exmouth in Western Australia, last year. About a month before I arrived in Coral Bay. The memories flooded my brain. Colours and shapes, coral, the noisy parrotfish, and drift snorkelling. Counting Reef sharks from the shore, clipboard in hand. Standing on the sand dunes late in the afternoon, watching the orange ball called Sun drop in the sky.
There are not enough superlatives in the world to describe the wonder that is Ningaloo Reef. Simply, it blew my mind. Every day I was there. Every moment of every blessed day.
I have photos, sure, and some of those are spectacular. Humpback whales shimmering on the water’s surface. And spinner dolphins racing alongside the research boat. A tiger shark cruising past as we bobbed in the sea and gazed at starfish nestled in the white sand. The tiger so close as it glided behind me. Scrambling to catch up as the shark slid into the shadows between the coral bommies. Shy turtles shoving their snouts skyward, then diving into the depths only to re-surface some distance from the boat.
My first day out in the boat off Coral Bay, I slipped into the water and looked around, and skipper Frazer said, “Annie, look down,” and I put my masked face under the surface. A giant manta ray curved up in a graceful arc and looked back at me. Curious and gentle, her arms curled in front of her. Two hopeful and much smaller males, trailing behind in a mating chain. These rays were the focus of our study. The markings on manta rays are like fingerprints. They are photographed and entered into a database. The researchers have been able to track individuals over many years. Some have battle scars from propellers and shark bites. Most rays are black on top with a white belly. A small number have glossy black bellies.
I stayed on land one day and walked down the beach towards the shark sanctuary to help out with the weekly survey. The sanctuary is marked by signs and visitors are told not to disturb the feeding sharks. So, we counted the 80 or so reef sharks as they swarmed in close to the shore for brunch. We also counted the 11 tourists, adults and children alike, who waded into the shallows to swim with the sharks. Thing is, if someone is nipped while these small sharks are feeding, a couple of unfortunate knock-ons could happen. Everyone will be banned from this beautiful spectacle as the sharks gather here every day. And the sharks if disturbed often enough, will leave this safe place and look elsewhere for a new feeding ground. It only takes a few irresponsible people to mess up an ecosystem.
In my final day out in the research boat, a bow-rider skippered by research student Ronnie, we were heading to a set of coordinates on the reef to set up a plankton tow. The afternoons were usually spent back at the air-conditioned lab filtering plankton and counting species and unhatched eggs under a microscope. We also uploaded photos of manta rays and matched them to known individuals. Discovering a new manta ray was a bit like winning the Ningaloo Reef lottery. On this morning I was perched in my usual seat on the bow, weathering the spray, when someone spotted a puff a bit further out in deeper water. A couple of puffs later, and we spotted three humpback whales steaming south in our direction. Huge backs shimmered in the sun as the whales breached the sea’s surface. Water streamed off their sides in a spectacular show of power.
We continued on our way to the designated spot for the first plankton tow. But, no way, the boat was spotted by a pod of spinner dolphins and they wanted to play. Our skipper attempted to turn the boat away from the dolphins a few times. But these curious marine mammals were having fun and could easily out manoeuvre the boat. I snapped hundreds of photos of dolphins and their pups as they ran with the boat for the next few minutes. And I swear their pointy snouts were smiling as they dived, launched out of the water, twisted and dived again, racing through the water on both sides of the boat. One of those photos I will treasure forever, regardless of anything else I encounter on my travels. It captures the pure pleasure of a dolphin in its natural element. And, trust me, I never forget that the ocean belongs to these animals and the other species living on the reef.
After a week of research work at Coral Bay, our small group was driven back to Learmonth Airport. I collected a (white, unluckily) hire 4WD and headed into Exmouth for another adventure.
Do I think you should visit Ningaloo Reef? Do it! Do it! Do It!